- - Sunday, October 18, 2015

BIRMINGHAM, ALA. | “Woodlawn” co-director Jon Erwin is deeply concerned the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wants to eliminate chaplaincy programs at universities across the country.

“Woodlawn,” which debuted in theaters Friday, is based on the true story of a chaplain and star football player who together led an evangelistic movement that curbed a violent desegregation process at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham in 1973.

Mr. Erwin believes now more than ever, chaplains are needed to help reduce violence and racial tension in the U.S. by passing along what he says are core values of peace, love and forgiveness.

“I’m a passionate person,” Mr. Erwin told The Washington Times. “So I think that when you look at a chaplain at a high school or college who raises their own support, raises their own salary and wants to come in and volunteer to work with athletes and people in schools to help them … and you want to stop that?

“It blows my mind that anybody in the social climate that we live in right now in America would want to stop that,” he said.

Mr. Erwin and his brother, “Woodlawn” co-director Andrew Erwin, grew up with the story of Woodlawn High School in their native Birmingham. Their father, former Alabama State Senator Henry “Hank” Erwin, was a young evangelist in 1973 when he helped to diffuse racial violence at the school that had gotten so bad the FBI was contemplating its closure.

“Politics couldn’t stop it. Police couldn’t stop it. Teachers couldn’t stop it. Nothing could stop the violence,” Mr. Erwin said. “The only thing that literally turned the school around, and turned around a situation of despair into a situation of hope, was an entire football team committing themselves to God and each other and saying we are going to model this thing that Jesus said 2,000 years ago: to love God and to love each other.”

Faith proved to be a critical touchstone for Woodlawn’s football team, who in turn inspired the rest of the school and their community. The team and its star player, Tony Nathan, soon caught the attention of legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant, who had been working to integrate his own team.

Regardless of the spiritual and social dividends, the FFRF says chaplains — whether paid with public funds or not — have no constitutional right to share their religious views with students at practice, during a game or at any other school-sponsored function.

As reported in The Washington Times in August, the FFRP wrote cease-and-desist letters to several universities demanding that they eliminate their chaplaincy programs. Auburn University, the University of Georgia, Florida State University, Clemson University and Louisiana State University were among the schools receiving letters. To date, the schools have retained their chaplains.

“I think an attack on chaplains would be a huge mistake in the cultural climate that we live in today,” Mr. Erwin said. “And I think we need to look back and see who led us out of darkness and civil rights — pastors like Martin Luther King. Do we really want to be in a climate where the Martin Luther Kings of today would no longer have a voice or platform?”

Mr. Erwin’s comments come at a time when a popular football coach in Seattle was told recently that he would lose his job if he continued praying with football players.

The Seattle Times reported Saturday that Bremerton High School Assistant Coach Joe Kennedy, a Marine war veteran, defied a cease-and-desist letter from his school district after he chose to silently pray with players from both teams following a game on Friday night.

An attorney with the Liberty Institute, which is representing Mr. Kennedy, said Bremerton School District will face a lawsuit if his client loses his job for what he says is his constitutional right to exercise his faith.

Mr. Erwin said increased tension and violence in the U.S. makes telling Woodlawn’s story even more relevant. He had learned that riots had broken out in Ferguson, Missouri, at the same time that he was filming racially charged attack scenes in Birmingham for the movie.

“There are so many similarities between the time period of this movie and the times that we live in today,” Mr. Erwin said. “And what I love about it is that it’s a film about love and unity conquering racism and hate — a true story. It makes me very optimistic that if [love and unity conquering racism] happened then, it could happen today.”

The $25 million film, produced by Sony’s Provident Films, is one of the costliest faith-based films to date. Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight plays Coach Bryant, and Sean Astin (“Lord of the Rings,” “Rudy”) plays the team’s chaplain. Newcomer Caleb Castille, a former defensive back for Alabama, plays the lead role of Tony Nathan, a talented running back who would go on to enjoy a standout career in the NFL.

The film, which is currently in 1,300 theaters, is being distributed by faith-based film company Pure Flix (“God’s Not Dead,” “Do You Believe?” and “Faith of our Fathers”).

“Woodlawn” continues to garner positive reviews. Sports Illustrated said: “Regardless of religious conviction, Woodlawn shares a universal truth: Winning is sweeter when you play for a larger cause.”

Popular Fox News commentator Sean Hannity said of the film: “It was just incredible.” The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that “the fact-based film turns out to be an improvement over many others in the faith-based flock.” Also on Saturday, popular movie review website Rottentomatoes.com showed the film had attained an overall audience score of 90 percent.

Mr. Erwin said the film has had an evangelistic impact on some viewers.

“In Amarillo, Texas, something like 250 high school athletes watched the film, and over half the room stood to make the decision together that, ‘Hey, we’re going to love God and we’re going to love each other, and we’re going to model unity in our communities.’”

Mr. Erwin said he’s grateful for the film’s growing fan base, which affirms his belief that audiences continue to crave more hope-filled and encouraging stories.

“People ask me, ‘What does Woodlawn sell?’ I think the one word is hope, and I think that we’re at this point in America where [there is] a bit of cultural desperation, and we need hope and we need optimistic stories of hope,” Mr. Erwin said.

“‘Woodlawn’ is one of those stories, and I hope it can lift our heads a little bit as a people and remind us that we’ve been in these situations before, and there is hope and there is a way out. Hopefully we can all find it together.”

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